Orchard oddities

Yet another article looking at varieties of fruit for our small orchard, this time examining a few orchard oddities. A mixed orchard such as ours is composed primarily of apples, pears, and plums, but there are other fruits that one might consider, four of which we have picked out for planting this winter: crab apple, medlar, quince, and mulberry. None could be called rare, by any means, yet aside from the crab apple, they do not seem to be planted so often now and I am keen to grow at least one of each.

Crab apple

Whilst our cultivated apples appear to have originated in Asia, the crab apples, Malus sylvestris, are native to Europe and are a commonly found hedgerow fruit. Although they typically produce small, sour and unpalatable fruit, they do have some uses. The fruit is high in pectin, which is needed to set jams and jellies, and can be used on their own to make crab apple jelly or as a component in other preserves. They are also often added to other apple varieties in traditional cider production. They are often planted as an ornamental, as they bear a huge amount of blossom over a long period, followed in the autumn by a heavy crop of, in suitable varieties, colourful fruits. Limited culinary uses aside, their blossom is a good addition to the orchard for the purposes of pollination. Flowering over a longer period than cultivated apples, they are able to pollinate a great many varieties. Our selection of the very late flowering Court Pendu Plat for the orchard might otherwise be problematic, as none of the other apple trees are suitable pollinators, but with a crab apple nearby I am hopeful that we might see a good crop in the future.

There are many varieties of crab apple, but John Downie appears to be considered a good choice for both ornamental value and fruit. I could not find out too much about the background of this apple, but it appears to have been raised by one Mr Holmes of Whittington, near Lichfield, in the 1870s, and named after Scottish nurseryman John Downie. It should produce lots of blossom, be a good pollinator, and yield a heavy crop of crimson crab apples for either decorative or culinary purposes.

Medlar

The medlar is an odd fruit. In appearance it is rather like a small dull russet apple, except that the calyx is very large and entirely open, giving the fruit a rather strange appearance. It is a member of the rose family, like so many of our fruits. Although the flesh can be eaten when picked fresh, it is only considered palatable when left to blet for some weeks. As apples will sweeten in storage, the process of bletting also increases sugar content, whilst lowering acidity, reducing tannins, and softening the flesh. The flesh will appear dark, rather like that of a bruised apple. The fruits are considered ready to eat when they are on the point of decay, when they are either eaten as they are, or processed into medlar jelly or some other sort of preserve.

I must confess that I have yet to sample a fresh medlar, and am not in any great hurry. Yet, I still want to grow one, partly out of curiosity for this crop that has been cultivated since ancient times and partly because they have fallen out of favour and are not so often cultivated now in the garden. There are a few varieties of medlar, perhaps the most common being Nottingham, which is certainly an ancient variety. However, whilst looking for a supplier for the Calville Blanc d’Hiver apple, I came across Bernwode Fruit Trees – a supplier of many interesting varieties of fruit tree – which offered an unusual alternative, which they refer to as ‘Senlac’. I found the description quite interesting, so decided to try this variety instead. The following description is taken, with permission, from their website, www.bernwodefruittrees.co.uk:

“Introduced by us in 2005. We must thank Liz Phillips, of Battle, East Sussex, for discovering this ancient medlar, providing invaluable background information, and for sending the scionwood. She found the tree, long undisturbed and overgrown with larger trees, near an old Roman iron ore pit, very close to Battle Abbey, the Benedictine monastery built on the site where King Harold fell at The Battle of Senlac (Hastings). History records that the abbey had orchards and this region of Sussex is one of very few areas where medlars have ever been found wild in Britain. This is the closest to the Norman site, yet discovered, and is probably a seedling in direct line from the medlars cultivated by the monks. Medlars can live for 3-400 years, so it is possible that this tree is only a few generations away from the Norman conquest. There are only a few distinct strains of medlar and this seems to match some descriptions of the ancient Neapolitan Medlar, not encountered in modern times, though the recorded history of medlar varieties is somewhat confused. It has thorny wood and quite small fruit, with leaves longer, narrower and darker than the larger fruited, cultivated varieties. The flavour is better and stronger than Nottingham but it has much less flesh in proportion to pip.”

As an aside, I ordered both the Calville Blanc d’Hiver apple and Medlar Senlac from Bernwode. They provide pot grown trees, whereas I am used to planting bare root specimens during the dormant period. Nonetheless, the apple tree was as fine a maiden whip as I have seen, albeit at a little higher price than some nurseries and with a higher delivery charge than seems usual. Bare root specimens can, of course, be bundled together and packed rather more readily than pot grown trees. What I did find interesting was their general philosophy towards the conservation of the old varieties, which rather echoes my own sentiments, and is, at least in my view, very good to see – you can read more at www.bernwodefruittrees.co.uk/about.htm. Their collection of rare apple varieties is quite extensive and very interesting indeed.

Quince

Somewhat like the medlar, the quince, even if by no means a rare fruit, does not seem to be widely cultivated today, although one can find quince products in stores, such as the quince paste or jelly that is often paired with cheese. The fruit itself is seen rather less often. Interestingly, marmalade, that most quintessentially British staple of the breakfast table, was originally made from quince, rather than oranges, and is, of course, not remotely British in origin; the quince paste is known in Spanish as membrillo, but in Portuguese as marmelada.

Quince fruits are typically fairly large, essentially pyriform, although, like pears, some can be more apple shaped, and a little uneven, even rather lumpy. Typically green skinned ripening to pale yellow, even when ripe their flesh remains firm, but highly scented. They may be cooked for the dessert, with other fruits or on their own, or then used in various preserves.

As well as being an interesting fruit to grow in its own right, quince rootstocks have been used for many years to dwarf pear trees, many varieties of which can be readily grafted onto quince, although some need to be double worked. Doyenne d’Ete, a small very early summer pear that we have growing as a cordon is one such variety that requires an interstock.

Unlike many of the pome fruits, quince are self fertile so only one tree is needed. I opted for the variety known as Vranja, an old variety hailing from Serbia, possibly synonymous with Bereczcki although this point is disputed by some. It is said to produce excellent fruit and to be well suited to cultivation in southern parts of the UK, although not perhaps a heavy cropper. In the context of our orchard, a heavy crop really is not needed. Vranja was awarded an AGM by the RHS in 1993, so should be a reliable sort.

Quince Vranja

Quince Vranja

Image reproduced with permission from the National Fruit Collection, www.nationalfruitcollection.org.uk.

Mulberry

The mulberry is an interesting tree, the white sort being the favoured diet of the silkworm. A great many mulberry trees were planted at the behest of King James I, in order to develop a silk industry. However, somebody failed to do their homework, as it seems that it was the black mulberry, Morus nigra, that was planted, rather than the white, and nothing appears to have become of the silk industry.

The mulberry needs rather more space to grow than the other orchard fruits, so will probably be planted on its own, in the vicinity of our other large trees, the walnut and chestnut. They can be trained into restricted forms, but as full sized specimens they are spreading and become rather gnarled as they develop. As we have the space, it will be great to see a full sized tree develop, although we are unlikely to see any fruit for many years. Thankfully, mulberries are self fertile, so only one is needed for fruit. Although there are different varieties, with its historical connection, the variety known as King James I, seems entirely appropriate. This variety is also known as Chelsea, having been propagated from an old specimen found in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

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